Review: Jagged Alliance (DS)

Jagged Alliance
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Developer: Strategy First/Cypron Studios
Publisher: Atari
Release Date: 05/20/09

Jagged Alliance originally came out on the PC back in 1994 as something of a more involved, mercenary-based version of popular PC mainstay X-Com: UFO Defense. The original game was quite revolutionary at the time, featuring personality-filled characters and a large amount of items and statistics for each character, and it generated a solid buzz at the time from strategy fans. The franchise achieved a small amount of success that generated a solid sequel and an expansion pack before Sir-tech apparently went out of business in 2001. Since then a few other companies seem to have picked up where Sir-tech left off with additional expansions and an as-of-yet unreleased sequel. The DS has become something of a resurrection place for old PC titles, and now Jagged Alliance has seen a DS remake, courtesy of Strategy First and Cypron Games. It’s still as solid a strategy game as it ever was, but does it hold up well to its PC counterparts and sequels? More importantly, on a console that has no shortage of strategy games, is Jagged Alliance worth your time?

Let’s take a look.

So there’s apparently been something of a hostile takeover of the research facility on Metavira Island that is researching the Fallow trees on the island, as their sap has proven to be an effective cure for some type of illness. The secondary researcher Lucas Santino, after setting events into motion that have allowed him his own research station on the island, has decided to take the remainder of the island by force. You take on the role of a nameless representative of the Association of International Mercenaries, or AIM, a mercenary organization who performs various and sundry tasks of less than savory sorts for cash. You are contacted by Doctor Jack Richards and his daughter Brenda to amass a mercenary force and take back the island from Santino so the doctor can return to his work. From there, you’ll take on the task of liberating the island from Santino through your recruited mercenaries, using whatever means and tactics you deem appropriate. The story is pretty basic. Aside from the odd daily side missions that pop up to give you focus, most of the story is told in the beginning of the game, and then doled out sporadically in small snippets as you accomplish your secondary goals. The pacing of the storyline is nice, as you get a little bit of story every so often, which gives you enough motivation to complete your tasks aside from the obvious BECAUSE THOU MUST, and the game isn’t stuffed full of exposition every five minutes, which is nice for entirely different reasons.

Jagged Alliance is a solid looking DS title, and while it’s not exceptional in any way, it looks good enough that you can figure everything out with little trouble. Trees and shrubs look as they should and look different enough to be discernable, the environments are differentiated well enough that you can easily tell the difference between terrain types, and the character models you see in the field animate well and look generally fine. The odd cutscenes that pop up look fine on the DS, and the talking head scenes that establish the various objectives you’ll have to meet each day look fine as well. On the other hand, all of the character models in the game look identical save for hair and shirt color, and there’s no differentiation between men and women, which is… weird, to say the least. There’s also not a whole lot of variety from one location on the island to the next, meaning that after a while every location kind of blends together. The aural presentation fares better than the visuals, largely because of the fact that there’s a sizable amount of voice work in the game, the various voice clips that come up at the beginning and end of missions and the snippets of voice acting from your mercs, each of which is fairly unique to the specific character. The music is generally dramatic and fits the experience well, and the sound effects, while not impressive, sound fine on the DS speakers, and work well for the game.

Jagged Alliance, being a turn-based strategy game, will be instantly familiar to fans of the genre, though the way it does things is a little more involved than many of its peers. The game is divided up into days, during each of which you will have a certain number of hours to perform tasks. Before the start of each day you’ll be given access to your base of operations, which allows you to adjust system settings, save your progress, and recruit or dismiss mercs in your employ. You will be able to view prospective mercs through the AIM system and attempt to hire them, assuming they aren’t on assignment elsewhere, you can afford them, and they don’t turn you down for some reason (not wanting to work with a specific member of your team, thinking you’re a pansy, the usual). Once you’ve settled on who you’re hiring/firing, you then start your day, and after a brief explanation of the day’s happenings, you then go to the island map. The island map allows you to decide an insertion point for your team to start their work for the day, though you can only insert the team into locations you control. It also allows you to set up workers in locations you control to farm tree sap and set up guards to prevent opposing forces from invading your territory. Guards and sap farmers both are hired through a general salary that you can dictate through the map screen, and the higher your offered salary is, the more workers you can recruit at any given time. Taking over more territory will also allow you to hire more workers, of course, so you needn’t focus on raising pay scales right away if you don’t want to. You can also redistribute the inventories of your mercs for the coming day and dictate their activities, meaning you can decide if they’ll see active duty, train their skills, rest up, heal up, or collect their pink slip. After setting up your workers and choosing an insertion point, the game drops down to ground level, and this is where the strategy begins.

You’ll see every location from an overhead perspective which you can move around using the D-pad or the stylus, and it’s from this perspective that you’ll make the important decisions in your campaign to take back the island. In friendly locations, time elapses quickly, and you can move your mercs in real time, so you can send them to various locations to perform tasks. In non-com at scenarios, your mercs can be used to pick locks, open crates, loot usable items, disarm traps and other basic tasks, but in most cases you’ll generally just be using them to loot whatever spoils exist at your present locale and to traverse across the location into new territory. Tapping on a unit selects that unit specifically, and you can direct that unit to a location by tapping the location, or you can direct your entire group by holding the location and choosing to move the group from there. Switching locations is as simple as moving the group to the edge of the map and choosing to move the group in that direction, which will switch you to the next location. Moving into a non-hostile location will allow you to continue moving freely as normal, but moving into hostile territory immediately switches the game to turn-based strategy mode.

Turn-based strategy mode should be immediately familiar to most fans of the genre. You’ll be able to move your troops individually by selecting them, then tapping their destination to direct them to it. Your troops can walk or sneak to locations, crouch, use whatever item is in their primary hand at any given time, and generally perform the same tasks they could perform in a non-combat setting, but in this instance, any actions they perform eat up Action Points. Each character has a set amount of AP they can use per turn and a set amount that replenishes between turns, and no, these numbers do not match up, meaning that a character may start a round with thirty AP, you might exhaust that AP during the turn, and the next round they might start with twenty AP because they were a bit tired. AP is also depleted for various other reasons, such as performing an action (less AP is depleted if a character is more skilled at the action performed), moving over different terrain types, and other such things. Knowing when to conserve AP, when to rest for a turn, and when to go all-out is important to survival in combat, so you’ll want to get used to that early, while combat is easier.

Whenever your characters spot an enemy, they’ll make mention of it in some form or fashion, usually, and a red dot will appear on the mini-map to indicate this. You’ll be able to take action against the enemy, if you have a weapon equipped and enough AP to use it, and each weapon can have different attack types, so guns might allow you to take an aimed shot, a regular shot, or a quick shot, each of which costs a different amount of AP and has a different likelihood of making contact, as an example. The enemies can shoot back, of course, and as your allies and enemies take damage, they drop to different health rankings showing how bad off they are. If they take enough damage, they die, which is good for enemies, but bad for allies, as it means that the deceased merc is now gone from the game, as is any investment you put into upgrading them. You’ll want to be careful about your movements as well, as if an enemy spots you as you’re moving, and they have some stored up AP, they can react to your movements and move in closer or squeeze off a quick shot, but on the plus side, you can do the same thing if the situation permits.

Your mercs all have their own individual inventories, which can be augmented by various multi-pocketed vests. They can carry different tools for different scenarios, including combat weapons like knives, guns and grenades, med packs for patching up the wounded, lockpicks for what you’d expect, canteens to keep them from dehydrating in some sections, ammunition for weapons, and other useful tools. They can also be equipped with various pieces of clothing that can boost their armor ratings, allowing them to more readily survive damage in battle, which helps keep them around. Each merc also has sever different stats that dictate how good they are in general, for things like Strength (for AP maximums and melee damage), Health (how much damage they can take), Engineering (how good they are with mechanical work and lockpicking), Medical (how good they are at healing others), Explosives (how good they are with using/disarming explosives) and other things. Cheaper mercs have lower skill rankings, which you can upgrade through general activity or training, though as they upgrade their experience ranking rises, which increases how much they demand to be paid, so it’s worthwhile to watch out that you don’t make a team member TOO good, and thus cost prohibitive.

As the game progresses, different events will pop up, both in the storyline and in your group, that require various degrees of attention if you wish to avoid failing. The larger story missions that pop up are often of the “we need this thing resolved to survive” variety, IE we need a new location, we need our facility back, we need the water to be cleaned up, that sort of thing, and these will pop up periodically as you play. The smaller events pop up between your mercenaries, however, and usually come down to one merc saying “I don’t like this person, fire them or I quit”, or one of your mercs betraying you, or what have you. These events are simple and infrequent, but they’re actually pretty interesting in a “add a little depth to the experience without much effort” kind of way. Since you can go through the game multiple times with completely different teams and tactics, this is an interesting addition that helps make the game more replayable than one might first think. The game itself is around twenty hours from start to finish, depending on how good you are at clearing out zones and responding to situations, though there are also multiple difficulties to go through, so if you think you want a bigger challenge, you’re welcome to it.

Jagged Alliance doesn’t really give you any indication of how to do things properly to start off with, so unless you’ve played this sort of game before or you spend a good amount of time with the instruction manual, you’re most likely going to end up restarting the game after a week, because you’ll end up wasting days trying to figure out how to transition from location to location and you’ll end up hiring mercs that cost more money than you can afford. The game also doesn’t really change much after the first few hours, either; while in some games, there will be some sort of significant changes to your characters or some type of research you can perform to improve things or what have you, Jagged Alliance does nothing of the sort, leaving you to essentially go through the game in more or less the same fashion at all times, eschewing variety for complexity, and while that isn’t a terrible thing, it may put off some folks.

There are also a few smaller complaints that can make the experience frustrating. There’s no real system of commerce in the game, meaning that the only items/equipment you can provide to your mercs is anything you scavenge out in the field. While this is certainly an interesting way of doing things, it becomes annoying when you need a med pack or some ammo for a specific weapon, or when you’re wishing you could sell off the thirty-odd useless low-grade pistols you have in supply that you’re never going to use again. The touch-screen controls are occasionally not as responsive as they should be, and while this isn’t a problem most of the time, occasionally you might find yourself accidentally moving to the wrong location or shooting at the wrong spot because the game didn’t register your action properly. Having to navigate to the inventory screen to switch items between your character’s hands to make them perform different actions seems silly also; it’s understandable that they can’t use a weapon from their off hand, but why you need to switch the lockpick to their dominant hand, use it, THEN switch back to their weapon is beyond me. Again, these are little things, but they add up.

Jagged Alliance is a worthwhile addition to your DS collection if you’re a fan of turn-based strategy games, as it still holds up pretty well after all these years, but it’s a little archaic and underdeveloped in certain respects, which may make the appeal of the game for the more casual fans somewhat limited. The story is interesting enough to carry the experience along, the game looks fine and sounds good, and the gameplay is solid strategy action with lots of complexity and detail that should keep most fans of the genre occupied from start to finish. That said, the graphics look a little basic and lack detail compared to other, similar games on the DS, the complexity at the start and lack of significant variety towards the end might make the experience unappealing to more casual fans, and the smaller issues, like the lack of any sort of shop, the occasionally spotty touch-screen controls, and the frequent need to flip between the game world and the inventory screen may annoy players who are more accustomed to more basic, user-friendly games. If you’re a fan of the franchise or of turn-based strategy games in general, Jagged Alliance is a good time that’s complex and well-developed, but for more casual fans, this might be worth renting first before you commit to it.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: MEDIOCRE
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: GOOD
Originality: BAD
Addictiveness: GOOD
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE

Short Attention Span Summary:
Jagged Alliance has made a mostly successful transition from the PC to the DS, and fans of the franchise and the turn-based strategy genre will find plenty to enjoy in this adapted game, so long as they can overlook some flaws in the transition and the original product. The storyline is solid enough to carry along the experience from beginning to end, the visuals are acceptable, the audio is pretty good, and the game is generally complex and well structured enough to be entertaining and enjoyable from start to finish. Unfortunately, the visuals are a little dated and not as detailed as similar DS releases, the game is a bit archaic and lacking in variety as you progress, and there’s a fairly large learning curve at first that may result in some starting over. Assuming you can deal with that, some other minor issues, like occasional unresponsive touch screen control, a lack of a shop or any way to buy and sell goods, and the awkward need to switch back and forth from the inventory to the game world multiple times to accomplish simple tasks can get kind of annoying. The positives ultimately do outweigh the negatives, and fans of the genre or the franchise will find Jagged Alliance to be a fun and enjoyable game, but more casual fans might want to rent it first to see if they can accept the negatives without an issue.



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One response to “Review: Jagged Alliance (DS)”

  1. Thomas Avatar

    The problem with the game lies within the implementation of the AI. I started playing the game in hard mode, as I’m experienced and play JA2 up to now from time to time. While in the PC version of JA1 the harder the level, the more intelligent the AI behaves, i.e. they pull back to get support from allied characters, in the implementation on the DS the enemy often has an unreasonable advantage on view distance and thus shoot distance. I suppose it’s easier/faster to program an AI with this advantage, but it makes the game unplayable in hard mode from the 5-6th day on. You end up loosing mercs due to this flaw and its unbearable since one can make through the game on PC without loosing one merc (given you save/load often enough).

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